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The A-4 Skyhawk era with the IAF is coming to an end. The planes that attacked, plummeted and bred generations of combat pilots and navigators, will step down after more than four decades in service. Which instructional plane will replace it? The IAF set out to decide and narrowed down the choices to likely candidates. All the details in the article ahead

Jhonathan Maroz

Give it three, four years and the widespread deal will come through. The executives will shake hands, the emotional ceremonies will seal the deal officially and the papers will publish: "The A-4 Skyhawk, IAF's veteran instructional plane, has carried out its last flight".

This elderly fighter will have earned the headlines sincerely. It was a pioneer in the IAF modernization of the 1960's, shortly after the Six-Day War and symbolized the transition to the use of "Uncle Sam" products in light of President De-Gaulle's French embargo that left 50 Dassault Mirage III planes that were designated to the IAF on ground.

The first A-4 Skyhawk planes were received toward the end of December 1967, initially to make up for war losses and to assist the efforts in subsequent outbreaks: The A-4 Skyhawk served as the main attack plane of the Force during the War of Attrition, took part in the Yom Kippur War, assisted ground forces, and plummeted enemy planes, but this all is for an entirely different article.

Four decades later, in the year 2011, the A-4 Skyhawk serves mainly as the advanced instructional plane of the Force. Combat fighters and navigators meet the plane in the last portion of their Pilot Training course, and they later meet it again in their Operational Training course and in Advanced Training. Every combat fighter or combat navigator in the IAF has spent some time in an A-4 Skyhawk cockpit at some point or another, but alas, the decision had been made, and in a few years the Skyhawk will be replaced by another.

Which plane will replace the weathered "teacher"? Made by which country? What kind of new skills and abilities will it bring to the IAF? And what will be the Skyhawk's fate once a replacement is found? Some of these questions don't have simple answers; others don't have answers at all.

Is The End Near?
Perhaps it's better to begin with a different question: Why? For what purpose, in fact, should the exchange happen? At the end of the day, this plane has been faithfully serving the Force for over 40 years, 30 of them as an instructional plane and a successful hotbed for raising air crew members. The reason lies within the question: mostly because 40 plane years, lead to an elderly plane-age indeed.

"The A-4 Skyhawk isn't a young plane anymore", explains Lieutenant Colonel Avshalom, Head of the Aircraft Wing in the IAF. "These planes have been flying for so long and at the end of the day we can't pilot them anymore because they're showing availability and technical problems".

"The plane is getting older and its maintenance is getting tougher to up keep. Its time has come", reinforces Colonel Nitzan, Head of the Weapon Division.
Another reason, important no less and maybe even more, is the extent of the plane's compatibility with the modern era.

As an advanced training plane, the A-4 Skyhawk is supposed to emulate the reality of an operational squadron as closely as possible for combat fighters and navigators. But even in this area, the transition from a fighter plane that was new in the 1960's to the "technology monsters" that the Israeli Air Force operates today, has become more difficult.

"There's a gap between the way we train the pilots these days, and the battlefield that they eventually enter", says Lieutenant Colonel Avshalom. "The threats are changing, the battlefield is different, and the planes are different. Only the instructional plane stays the same".

The Information Revolution
"We look at the trajectory of a flight crew member from the combat formation", describes Colonel Kfir, Head of the Instruction Division in the Force. "His first few steps are taken on the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II, but in a few years he'll move on to the F-15I, the F-16I or the F-35I. We ask ourselves: What should be the transitional stage? It's important that the transition from the instructional plane to the operational plane won't be drastic, but fluid instead. These days, the jump is too large. For example, the transition from a Beechcraft T-6 Texan II to a F-16I is too big a step in every aspect".

The search for "the latest" in advanced instruction reveals another matter to take into consideration when choosing a new plane: The modern era has turned the aircraft into a highway of information, a sophisticated database that is constantly renewed, and only part of this data originates with flight crew members.

Lieutenant Colonel Avshalom: "The same information revolution that every adolescent is going through at home by using Facebook, can be found in the planes. The information flows inward from various directions and many different sources. In the Skyhawk plane, which is currently adapted to a certain type of exercise, this entire information revolution is non-existent and that's one of the reasons we're searching for a replacement".

Italy vs. Korea
The examination team, which consisted of three combat pilots from the Combat Weapon Division, the Air Force Center for Flight Trials, and the Flight School, was sent abroad together with authorities from equipment squadrons, to "fish out" suitable contenders.

Behind curtain number one: The T-50 "Golden Eagle" from South Korea, a product of the cooperation of the Korean Aerospace Industry (KAI) with the Lockheed-Martin Company.

The plane, which first took off in the year 2003, is one of the few instructional planes in the world that can reach the speed of sound. The South Korean Air Force has around 50 of these planes, which they have been flying for four years now.

The T-50 has logged in several thousands of hours as an instructional plane, but it's possible to assemble ammunition on it such as JDAM bombs, and use it as a combat plane although the IAF has no intention of doing so.

"The T-50 reminds us very much of the F-16 both in its construction and its performance, except that it was built as an instructional plane", explains Colonel Nitzan.

Behind Curtain Number two: The M-346 "Alenia Aermacchi Master" from the Italian Aermacchi Company. According to the company's spokesperson, the plane will soon start serving as an instructional plane for the Italian Air Force, which has already ordered the first batch of planes of this model.

It is interesting to note that in the meantime the Singaporean Air Force has also taken a liking to the plane and has signed a purchase deal with Aermacchi as well. The model was also chosen to be an instructional plane by the United Arab Emirates and is in competition in a number of European countries.

The Next Generation
The crews sent abroad decided to take a "test drive" or two on the designated aircrafts.

Their stay at a South Korean Air force base, which coincided with the period of tension between South Korea and North Korea, consisted of flights on the T-50 with Korean flight instructors from the "Advanced Combat" squadron.

Similar practices took place with Italian training squadrons as well, with Israeli flight crew members testing the planes with all the types of exercises that are currently taught on the Skyhawk. Aerial battles took place as well: T-50 vs. T-50, along with M-346 vs. M-346, with Israeli instructors sitting inside and battling alone, in pairs, and in every other possible way.

"The Skyhawk maneuvers like an old plane as opposed to these planes that maneuver like the F-16", states Colonel Nitzan, "When an advanced combat plane flies against the Skyhawk, it can knock it down in a matter of seconds. In general, when you enter the cockpits of these new planes, you feel like you're in an aircraft from the future".

Which one?
"Flying on a new plane is always an exciting event", adds Lieutenant Colonel Avshalom. "The Israeli flying style is very different from the Italian and Korean style and in that sense, the instructors that flew with us exhibited much courage. They allowed us to fly the way we do here in Israel and to test the limits of the planes. These planes solve difficult challenges that burden us today. When instructing on an A-4 Skyhawk, for example, it's very difficult to see the flight cadet sitting up front and it's hard to understand where he is looking, because the Skyhawk was not designed for instruction.

Intervening in these planes is much simpler, the advanced aerodynamics lessen the burden placed on instructors and we can be much more attentive to the cadets".
Now comes the really difficult part: the decision making.

"Both planes are really excellent aircrafts", says Lieutenant Colonel Avshalom. "Every one of them has its specific advantages and disadvantages, but I can say that they're both very well suited for the advanced training we're looking for".

 

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